A Virgin Most Pure…?

14 December 2012

Why is it so important for Christians that Jesus was born of a virgin? Indeed, one of the hallmarks of an ‘orthodox’ faith is to believe in the virgin birth and a bodily resurrection. 

But why is it so important?

I ask this because a recent article on Huffington Post announced that the Catholic Bishops released the revised version of the New American Bible, which translates Isaiah’s ‘almah’ in 7:14 – the basis of Matthew’s prophecy that the Messiah would be born of a virgin – as “young woman” rather than “virgin”.

This is not the first time it’s been done, and is not a new train of thought, but it is a contentious issue. The creeds say that Jesus was born of a virgin, and so of course that’s what Isaiah prophesied! Jesus’ virgin birth and divine conception, say conservatives, is part of the proof that Jesus is God, and to deny the virgin birth is to deny his deity.

And here it’s important to note that while we speak about virgin birth, we are really saying that it is Jesus’ conception that was remarkable and without an act of physical intercourse.

So the conception stories of Jesus in their context were not about a virginal conception as we understand it today, rather they were metaphors and motifs used to indicate that Jesus was special!

Oftentimes in scripture when a person chosen to be used by God is born, their conception is described as unusual. In the Hebrew tradition that was usually to a woman who was barren or past child-bearing age, for example to Abraham and Sarah.

Likewise in the ancient world important leaders were deemed conceived by the gods and earthly women.

The story of Jesus’s conception is not that special or unusual for his time and, in the context of the Jesus story, some would argue, presents the story of Jesus’ birth in particular contrast to the story of Caesar’s, who was also deemed “Son of God”.

The story of Jesus’ conception had an important place in the original context of the gospels: Jesus is God, and Caesar is not!

And another point in regard to the context of the time: the Pharisees:

These guys came out of a theology that said that the reason for the Jewish Exile to Babylon in the 500s BCE was because they had failed to keep the Torah as they should have. Their mission in life was to purify the life and worship of the Jews so that the Torah would be kept down to the last letter. Purity and holiness was über-important, something which, I think, has affected our understanding of God and Christianity even today. This is evident in the importance that we place on the purity of Jesus’ conception. How could the Son of God be born through an illicit sexual act??!!

But what if the virginal conception stories are just that, stories? How does that affect our faith as Christians?

A line in the article mentioned above stood out for me last night:

“This has been the dream of the modernists for centuries” said one Baptist pastor, “to make Jesus Christ the son of a bad woman.”

Surely it is more remarkable – and better news! – if Jesus Christ, God! is the son of a “bad woman” rather than of a virgin? And a far more logical extrapolation if we look at the rest of Jesus’ ministry – a ministry focussed on the outcast and excluded.

Mary herself speaks of, as we celebrate each Advent, her lowly stature. Why should it be a scandal to make Mary even ‘lower’ by her being a ‘bad girl’?

It is incredible good news to me that God is not born of the pure and holy as the Pharisees desired and decreed, but rather is born in and out of that which is often judged to be unworthy!

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She’ll be riding six white horses…

20 November 2012

A new Church of England guide, the Church Weddings Handbook, recommends that vicars be more flexible about personalised ceremonies. Other modern ideas, alongside rings being delivered by a trained owl, include arriving at church on horseback and walking down the aisle to the theme from Test Match Special. – News Report

The Rev Micky Thistlewaite looked at the couple before him curiously. How he longed for the old days when a wedding was a dignified, solemn occasion, and not the free-for-all it had recently become! Why, in the last two weeks alone he had had to contend with pythons wrapping the happy couple as a sign of marriage unity and fire-eaters as part of the ceremony. Owls were old hat!

While the latest guide instructed him to be more open to strange requests in church, that hadn’t stopped the slew of alternative weddings at non-church venues. Just last month he had had to go on a rappelling course so that he could marry a couple on a mountain face – at the expense of the diocese of course.

“Have to keep the punters, happy, Old Boy,” the bishop had told him. He thought that the bishop was less concerned about the punter’s happiness than he was about the church coffers, and didn’t expect that couple’s marriage to be any more stable than the ceremony was, but one did what one could.

“So what can we do for your wedding?” he asked. “Will it be Another one Bites the Dust as the bride enters, or will you be having the local cricket team as your best men? or perhaps,” he said, “you would like to do something we haven’t done before and get married in the buff?” Not that he would mind seeing her naked, he mused, but shuddered with horror at the thought of what some of the couples he’d married would look like in nothing but their birthday suits. It was a good thing, he decided, that love is blind.

The couple looked at each other as only couples can do when they have an announcement to make.

“Well, actually,” the groom-to-be said rather nervously, “There is something…”

“We hope you won’t mind terribly much…” his fiancé added.

“We’d like the Wedding March, Mendelssohn’s…”

At least it wasn’t Here Comes the Bride, he thought, big fat and wide. In fact he was so busy thinking that maybe a nude wedding would be rather a good idea that he nearly didn’t hear what they said next, and he needed to ask them to repeat it in case he’d heard wrong.

“I said,” the groom said, “that we’d rather like to celebrate the Eucharist as well… she’ll be wearing white of course, and we really would like a service that is simple and traditional…”

“So no foot washing…?”

“No.”

“No birds of prey…?”

“Not even doves.”

“No marching band coming down the aisle?”

“Just an organist,” they confirmed.

“Well!” he thought, “well, well! This was something!” He wondered what the bishop would make of it. He’d have to check the handbook, of course, but he was pretty sure it had nothing to say about wedding marches, wearing white or organists.

What story do you tell?

13 November 2012

The group – some people who knew each other, and some strangers – sat in a circle introducing themselves. I had instructed them to give their names and to say a little about themselves – to tell a part of their story. One by one they did so, sharing a little of what made them them.

I was struck by how they defined themselves.

To a great degree they focussed on what had gone wrong: I was retrenched, I lost a child, I’m lonely (me!) – and this started me thinking about the stories we tell about ourselves. While I don’t like the kind of philosophy / theology that says whatever we say sets in motion something in the spirit world so we must watch our words, I do think that the stories we rehearse and tell shape our lives.

If we are always focussed on the bad and how hard done by we are, our life experience is going to be negative and we will end up in a pit of depression. Likewise, if we focus on the positive and speak of the good things that happen, we are more likely to be a happy, positive person whose life experience is good.

Since then I’ve changed the story that I tell. What story do you tell?

Why Jesus is not my Saviour Part 6: Salvation

9 November 2012

I close off this series on how I understand Jesus and salvation, and why I believe I can say that “Jesus is not my Saviour” in the evangelical sense of the words, but that I can say with confidence that “Jesus is my Saviour” when those words are expounded in greater detail. I close by looking at two further understandings of salvation.

The first thing that I focus on today is that salvation is for all, part of John Wesley’s conviction about salvation: “All can be saved.” In Luke 14 Jesus tells a parable about a man who gave feast. The invited guests all had reasons not to be there, and the servants were sent out to fetch those who would never normally be able to attend such a feast.

Nobody was excluded! The banquet was packed with sinners: with the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. People who in terms of Jewish understanding were excluded from the worshipping community due to their disability – which was obviously due to some form of sin in their or their parents’ lives. They were unclean and as such not welcomed in the temple or the community for fear of polluting others.

So when Jesus tells this parable about the kingdom, he makes it clear as to who was included, and who was excluded. The very people whom his listeners thought would be excluded are the ones who make up the feast.

“Go out into the streets and alleys” says the master of the feast, “Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in…”

Exclusivity is out, inclusively is in. Everybody the others would have excluded, every single person, is welcomed at the feast. And who aren’t there? The only ones who don’t arrive are those who excluded themselves for a multitude of reasons: “I’ve bought a field,” “I’ve bought new oxen,” “I just got married”.

The feast is for all, salvation is for all. Regardless of who they are they are invited to the feast. The new guests are not required to wash first, or pledge allegiance to the Master. They come, as they are!

And this is the example that Jesus always shows in his interaction with the outcasts he encounters. Not once does he require them to be cleaned up, ritually or otherwise, he never asks for a commitment or promise of loyalty. The words of Jesus are simply, “What do you want me to do for you?” and “Come.”

Secondly, today, salvation is about now. When we look at Jesus as Saviour we have to understand that salvation is not primarily about what happens after death, but is about what happens now. In the parable the feast was today! Come now! Not, you will be welcome at the feast after death.

Wesley said that all can be saved to the uttermost and was speaking about transformation in this life, Paul writes the the Philippians encouraging them to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. That doesn’t sound like “give your life to Jesus and be saved in the hereafter” to me.

Salvation, I believe, is about running the race in such a way that our lives are transformed today! Brian McLaren tells the parable of the great race:

Once upon a time, in a land of boredom and drudgery exciting news spread: “There’s going to be a race, and all who run in this race will grow strong and will never be bored again!” Exciting news like this had not been heard for a long time, for people experienced little adventure in this ho-hum land, beyond attending committee meetings, waiting in lines, sorting socks and watching sitcom reruns.

Excitement grew as the day of the race drew near. Thousands gathered in the appointed town, at the appointed place. Most came to observe, sceptical about the news. “It’s too good to be true,” they said. “It’s just a silly rumour started by some teen aged trouble makers. But let’s stick around and see what happens anyway.”

Others could not resist the invitation, arriving in their running shorts and shoes. As they waited for the appointed time, they stretched and jogged in place and chatted among themselves with nervous excitement. At the appointed time they gathered at the starting line, heard the gun go off, and knew that it was time to run.

Then something very curious happened. The runners took a step or two or three across the starting line, and then abruptly stopped. One man fell to his knees, crying, “I have crossed the starting line! This is the happiest day of my life!” He repeated this again and again, and even began singing a song about how happy this day was for him.

Another woman started jumping for joy. “Yes!” she shouted, raising her fist in the air. “I am a race-runner! I am finally a race-runner!” She ran around jumping and dancing, getting and giving high fives to others who shared her joy at being in the race.

Several people formed a circle and prayed, quietly thanking God for the privilege of crossing the starting line, and thanking God that they were not like the sceptics who didn’t come dressed for the race.

An hour passed, and two. Spectators began muttering; some laughed. “So what do they think this race is?” they said. “Two or three strides, then a celebration? And why do they feel superior to us? They’re treating the starting line as if it were a finish line. They’ve completely missed the point.”

A few more minutes of this silliness passed. “you know,” a spectator said to the person next to her, “if they’re not going to run the race, maybe we should.”
“Why not? It’s getting boring watching them hang around just beyond the starting line. I’ve had enough boredom for one life.”

Others heard them, and soon many were kicking off their dress shoes, slipping out of their jackets, throwing all this unneeded clothing onto the grass. And they ran — past the praying huddles and past the crying individuals and past the jumping high fivers. And they found hope and joy in every step, and they grew stronger with every mile and hill. To their surprise the path never ended — because in this race there was no finish line. So they were never bored again.

(McLaren, B. Adventures in Missing the Point, p 26-27)

Salvation means being rescued from fruitless ways of life here and now, to share in God’s saving love for all creation, in an adventure called the kingdom of God.

So, let me close off today by saying that I am convinced that salvation is more than going to heaven when I die. It is knowing that even in my brokenness I’m accepted, without having to do or prove ANYTHING.

Salvation is for everybody – especially those who would appear to be excluded, and those who feel especially unworthy. In fact, the more broken the better, because often it is only when we are broken that we can experience the depth of God’s love.

Salvation is about sharing in the adventure of the Kingdom of God now, today, so that my earthly, human life can be transformed to the uttermost, and my world and community can become a better place through my actions.

When we understand salvation as fullness of life today, and when we live in a relationship with Jesus as Word and as Lord, then I have no problem with calling Jesus my Saviour.

May it be so for you!

Why Jesus is not my Saviour part 5: Salvation from sin

8 November 2012

Jesus died on the cross to save me from my sins. This is the message that Christians have heard, and repeated often. So much so that it is considered by many to be the crux, as it were, of the faith. Over the last few posts I’ve been challenging this view by defining what I mean by both Jesus and Salvation.

Last time I noted that I believe salvation is necessary, but not in the sense that Jesus had to die so that through some great cosmic deal between God and the devil my sins can be forgiven, and I can go to heaven when I die. Today I begin unpacking the term salvation by affirming that we do need to be saved from sin and what the death of Christ on the cross can mean.

I don’t think that anybody will argue with me that people need to be saved from sin, although possibly the definition of sin will become a point of contention. You see, if you ask someone what sin is, they will usually suggest the breaking of one of God’s laws and use examples such as sex before marriage, stealing something, greed, perhaps, or homosexuality or idolatry.

Do we need to be saved from these actions, or is there something deeper that needs dealing with?

It is very easy to feel guilty about these things – often unnecessarily I think – and to enjoy making others feel guilty about them because it gives us a sense of power over the ‘sinner’. As a clergy person it is especially convenient to create this sense of guilt because it can become a basis for emotional manipulation.

The kind of sin I  write about today is rather is the sin of brokenness, of missing the mark, falling short of the target. It is brokenness that is at the heart of many of the wrong things that people do, rather than the deed itself that we erroneously call sin. It is this brokenness that needs to be dealt with to effect a change in heart, and from there a change in behaviour.

When we look at Jesus we see that the people he mixed with, and the people he forgave, were the very people who were accused by the Pharisees as being sinners, people who were the deeply broken and ostracised: prostitutes, tax collectors and other outcasts.

Jesus was a saviour to these people not because he saved them from the sins that the Pharisees condemned them for, so that they could go to heaven one day, but because he accepted them and gave them a place in society which in turn resulted in their fundamental brokenness being transformed. He reminded his listeners that these people, the very ones who were manipulated and abused by the ‘righteous’ – and excluded from the saving work of the Temple system – were the ones who would be included in the feast of God’s kingdom.

The kind of sin that Jesus came to save people from is not sinful acts, but the brokenness of being excluded, the brokenness of being blind, or lame, or crippled, or poor. The brokenness of not knowing what to do, but doing one’s best to get through life only to find that it is not enough. The brokenness of living in a society that distorts what life is about, the brokenness of living with other people who are broken and hurt, and who in turn try to break and hurt us, and the brokenness of a world in which we have enemies out to destroy us.

It is from this sin of deep and fundamental brokenness in our own lives and in our society that we need salvation.

And this, for me, is where the death of Christ on the cross as an atoning sacrifice for sin, in it’s first century setting, makes sense. This setting was characterised by the Levitical sacrificial system of the Temple in Jerusalem. If one did something wrong – and there was no shortage people telling one that one had done something wrong – one was absolved by making a sacrifice at the temple. It was only the Temple leaders who could forgive sins and who had access to God.

Through their beliefs and politics they excluded those who were truly broken, who really needed to hear that their sins were forgiven, who really needed to hear that they were okay.

Rather than facilitate the grace and mercy of a loving God, the sacrificial system became a dominant power which prevented access to God’s grace for those who needed it most. So when the first Christians said that Jesus was the sacrifice for sin they didn’t mean literally that Jesus died in the place of a perfect lamb. They meant that Jesus had the authority to forgive their sins and the temple, which excluded them, no longer mattered.

In Christ they had discovered the grace of God that temple leaders refused to offer. “Jesus as a sacrifice” was an anti-temple statement that subverted the sacrificial system, and was a statement of radical grace that transformed broken lives in the way that the temple leaders could not and would not do.

Sadly, when the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the early 300s, it wasn’t long before Christianity became an established religion and the Christian faith became a temple with it’s own institutional monopoly on grace and access to God (Borg, M. Heart of Christianity, pp 94-95).

So salvation from sin, then, is not because we have to do something to be accepted by God because of all the laws we break. Rather, it is knowing that in our brokenness, God is pure love and grace who accepts us as we are and calls us to do the same for others. There is nothing and no one to prevent us from experiencing this grace!

The gospel message, “it is while we were yet sinners, that Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:6-11) reminds people that while they may be broken, and may feel guilty and inferior, God loves and accepts people just as they are. No one is excluded, and no one has the right to exclude those whom God loves.

The message of salvation from sin, then, is not to hear that God the police officer and judge will let us off if we say that we are really sorry, if we make the right sacrifice and do the right things. As Marcus Borg says, the primary message is that God is not police officer and judge. It is that God accepts us just as we are. No ‘if’ statement follows, despite our tendency to add one or more: – if we truly repent, if we truly believe, if we accept Christ as Saviour. The message of salvation from sin is one of unconditional grace: “You are accepted,” period, full stop. (Borg, M. The God we Never Knew, p 65)

So, even in our brokenness, we are okay, and that is the salvation that everyone needs to hear because this sets us free to become who we are called to be.

Why Jesus is not my Saviour Part 4: Salvation

5 November 2012

I love the image of a snake that sheds its skin every year! The snake’s skin is important – and not just for belts! – it serves a number of important functions for the snake: It keeps the outside out, it protects the snake from the elements, from injury. And it keeps the insides in! It stops all the snake’s organs from flopping around all over the place – that would be a pretty sad snake with no skin!

It’s important for the snake to have that skin, but for the snake to grow it has to shed that skin every year, and this is what I have had to do in my own faith journey.

This week I continue my discussion of why Jesus is not my Saviour, and perhaps I can re-title this topic, and some folk have commented that I should rather have said, “Why Jesus is not only my Saviour, not just my Saviour”. Perhaps I could say why Jesus is my Saviour, but qualifying the words ‘Jesus’ and ‘Saviour’.

And you will remember that this is what I’m doing in this series of columns. Last week I looked at Jesus as the Word made flesh and Jesus as Lord; this week I’m looking looking at how I understand Saviour.

If you’ve been following my previous posts you will know that I’m trying to get away from the evangelical concept of “Jesus died for me on the cross; His blood shed on the cross for me paid the price for my sin”. I’m happy if you call Jesus Saviour under those terms! but with two provisos:

First, that you know why you believe it. In other words, have you done your homework? Have you studied scripture fully, not just the appropriate verses, but verses which seem to contradict your viewpoint? Have you done the theological work you need to do so that this understanding is not just something you heard at an altar call when you were 16 and responded to and have never thought through more fully?

Second, I’m happy for you to believe it and hold tightly on to it as long as it is life-giving for you and for those around you – it is so important that our faith is life-giving.

As I have said previously, I needed to move on from that understanding of Jesus as sacrifice because that image was no longer life-giving for me. Like the snake I have had to shed my theological skin. I don’t know what it must feel like for the snake, and I don’t think snakes can think the way we do, but I imagine if they could, they would wonder whether the new skin is going to work properly: what if it leaks?! And I guess that the new skin will be a little more sensitive than the old one and I’m sure it must be scary for your skin to start sliding off, and probably irritating, itchy, and maybe even painful.

But what would happen if the snake didn’t shed its skin?  There would be no growth, the old one would become worn and tattered, and ultimately not very helpful. Sometimes we need to lose the theological skin that has kept us warm and safe, and grow into a new one, and sometimes that can be irritating, scary, and painful.

So I’m sharing some of my journey, not to try to upset people who are happy and comfortable in their theological skins, but to encourage those who are not; those who are also struggling – so that maybe they will have the courage to grow into a new skin of their own. It was Paul Tillich who said,

The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.

And Dr Welton Gaddy who recognises that

in any individual’s life it takes a crisis of faith to come to a faith that is his or hers, not one passed on by someone else.

When we stop believing in the God whom we have been taught to follow, whether through doubt, incredulity, or busyness; when what or who we have called God ceases to have any meaning for us, what we are left with is a God we can worship honestly, and this is what I’m hoping to convey in this series.

And so please remember that this is about my journey. Your journey may be different and that’s okay! Engage me, and let’s discuss our faith!

The idea of salvation has not only always been a key concept in Christianity, but is present in the Hebrew Bible also, but more in the context of salvation from one’s enemies rather than being saved from hell. Salvation has been important in Christianity from the writings in the Christian Testament of which Paul’s were the first, right up to our own day and also in the Wesleyan heritage, with the ‘four all’s’ of Methodism defining the meaning of the gospel:

All need to be saved
All can be saved
All can know that they are saved
All can be saved to the uttermost

So I have no desire to say that salvation is not Christian, it is a vitally important part of being a Christian, rather my concern about the concept of salvation is that we have taken the term out of its original context and made it mean something different from what was originally intended.

The reality is that for many Christians salvation means little more than going to heaven one day when they die – and indeed that seems to be the central focus of Christianity today: To get oneself, and as many others as possible, to say the ‘sinners’ prayer;’ to accept Christ as personal Saviour; to have your sins forgiven and to have an assurance of going to heaven after one has shuffled off this mortal coil – even though there is no mention in the Bible of “sinners’ prayer”, “personal saviour” and little focus on life after death.

As Brian McLaren notes, if one were to ask Paul if he were going to heaven if he died tonight he would be rather puzzled by the question. He probably would had said “yes”, but for him the point of Christianity was more about people becoming fully mature and fully formed in Christ. Salvation, for Paul, was more about experiencing the glorious realities of being in Christ, and experiencing Christ in oneself (Adventures in Missing the Point, p 20).

So this week I want to suggest that God is bigger than salvation for after death, and that a bigger understanding of salvation leads to a fuller life now. I hope to show how we can see salvation as being from sin, for all, and about now, rather than something that happens when we die. I will blog about each of these concepts over the next week.

Why Jesus is not my Saviour part 3: Jesus as Lord

2 November 2012

There is an attitude that was popular in the white South African community during the darkest days of apartheid, and it related to the involvement of churches and church leaders, such as then Bishop Desmond Tutu, in the struggle against the white government. Many whites said that the church and politics don’t mix. Faith is a private matter and people’s worship of God should have nothing to do with their political desires. They were deeply upset by their churches and church leaders when they spoke out against the government – yet how we understand Jesus has to influence how we do life.

If Jesus is the Word who spoke all of creation into existence, how we respond to that Word makes all the difference, and the very first response, the earliest creed – a creed, of course, being a measuring standard to which we compare all subsequent beliefs – was a very simple, three word statement:

“Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:19)

There was no mention of Jesus being Saviour, although the statement was often set in that context – the meaning of salvation being a little different from what we understand today, however. I will unpack this in more detail in the next instalment. Interestedly in both the Apostles’ Creed and the earliest version of the Nicene Creed there is no mention of Jesus’ work as saviour.

But this simple, basic statement of belief, of who Jesus was, and is, was never intended as we mean it today when we say it. We will often say, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?” Today there is a personalised meaning to it: “My Lord” — as if we can own God!

In Roman times nobody was ever persecuted because of a personal belief, as in South Africa during the apartheid years. When the early Christians were persecuted it wasn’t because they called Jesus a personal Lord and Saviour – it was because when they made the statement, “Jesus is Lord” they were saying Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not. Jesus is Lord, and the apartheid government is not.

It was a statement of subversive, revolutionary intent. The first Christians were challenging the authority of the Roman empire, and they were able to do this confidently in the face of persecution because they believed that in Jesus they could see God, and obedience to God was more important than playing it safe with the Empire.

This is the earliest meaning of the cross for Jewish followers of Christ in the face of Roman persecution, and so I want to unpack some biblical meanings of the cross in the light of the statement ‘Jesus is Lord’ – you’ll recognise them, but problem is we get them all confused and mixed up with ‘atoning sacrifice’ model. Marcus Borg explains this far more fully than I do in Heart of Christianity, pp 92-94.

First, Jesus, who was put to death for his politics, for his passion for God’s justice, was vindicated by God. The authorities rejected Jesus, but God raised him up (Acts 2:36). There is no mention of atoning sacrifice! This is a word of wonderful comfort for those struggling for justice!

When Jesus is Lord, second, no powers are able to overcome him because he has defeated them on the cross. They (the principalities and powers) tried their best to put him to death, to shut him up, but he triumphed over them (Col 2:15). Another encouraging image when it seems that regardless of what we do, evil triumphs!

Third, when Jesus is Lord we choose to follow him because he has shown us ‘the way’ to life in dying to an old way of being, and being raised to a new way of being (Gal 2:19-20). This is what we remember in the sacrament of baptism, and again there is no mention of sacrifice for sin. We get confused and say that the way we die to the old way of being is by giving our life to Christ and making him our Saviour. This has the result of removing our responsibility for our lives and makes the goal of Christianity salvation for heaven in the future, rather than a new way of being for today.

The fourth biblical way of seeing Jesus’ death when Jesus is Lord is as a revelation of the depth of God’s love for us, and the power of God’s love – not about sacrifice for our behalf as something that needs to be done, but rather an example of what Jesus means when he says “love each other; love your enemy.” The love that Jesus talks about looks, and feels, like an excruciating, painful death of self.

The fifth way the Bible teaches of Jesus death is familiar ‘scapegoat for our atonement’ model based on the Jewish sacrificial system, which I’ll look at in more detail next week.

I close these thoughts with the statement that Jesus is not my personal Saviour, Jesus is not Lord of my life, but rather that as a Christian there is but one power that I will answer to, and that is Jesus, even when I am called to sacrifice my comfort, my privilege and my safety for the sake of others. This is what the gospel, and healthy religion calls us to, not a personal piety that has no place in the politics of oppression.

And this is when the gospel becomes radical, powerful, and life-changing.

CONCLUSION

The second commandment cautions against making an idol of God (Exodus 20:1-6), in other words, picturing God in a way that God is not, and probably we’re all guilty of that in one way or another, creating God in our own image. But particularly, I think we’re guilty in the way in which we have painted Jesus as only a Saviour when he is so much more.

What I am saying in this series is that there are other ways of seeing Jesus: ways that shouldn’t cheapen who he is, but rather that enrich who Christ is for us. I’m not sure that it matters so much how we speak of God, what matters is how we hear him (paraphrasing Martin Buber, quoted by Borg in Heart of Christianity, p 50). In my journey I’ve needed to start hearing the Christ in other ways.

I’m not saying that I don’t need salvation. I’m not saying that I’m too righteous to need Jesus. I’m saying there are other ways of understanding Christ, and other ways of understanding salvation, which I’ll look at in the next three parts. I’m very happy if you’re comfortable to call Jesus Saviour and that is meaningful in your journey, but for me I’ve had to let go of that image, and  I conclude by quoting both Borg and Spong:

  • I would rather celebrate the sacred who is right here and the God who yearns to be in relationship to us, than a lawgiver and judge whose requirements must be met and whose justice must be satisfied.
  • I would rather live out a faith in which the central dynamic is relationship with God, and the world, and each other, than one in which the central dynamic is sin and guilt.
  • I would rather celebrate a Christian life which is about turning toward and entering into a relationship with the one who is already in a relationship with us the one who gave us life, who has loved us from the beginning, who loves us whether we know it or not and who journeys with us whether we know it or not.

I can no longer follow a superman Jesus who swoops down from heaven to lift me up out of the world and carry back into God’s arms. Rather I seek to follow the Word who is the way, the truth and the life (Jn 14:6).

  • Jesus, the way into the heart of God, the Ground of all Being (Tillich).
  • Jesus, the truth through which my life can be lived with theological and human integrity.
  • Jesus, the life who has made known what the meaning of life is.

And in the words of Spong, being a disciple of this Jesus only requires me to be empowered by him to imitate the presence of God in him by living fully, by loving wastefully, and by having the courage to be all that God created me to be.

Bibliography

  • Borg, MJ. The God We Never Knew. HarperCollins, New York, 1998.
  • Borg, MJ. Jesus. As a supplement to Borg, JM & Wright, NT. The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. HarperCollins, New York, 2007.
  • Borg, MJ. The Heart of Christianity. HarperCollins, New York, 2003.
  • Spong, JS. Why Christianity must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. HarperCollins, New York, 1999.

Why Jesus is not my Saviour (Part 2): Jesus as Word

31 October 2012

I sat in the circle surrounded by a group of lay people whose understanding of interviewing a candidate for the position of minister meant “Be as hostile as possible and use him to work off all the frustrations that you have regarding your current and previous ministers.” In any event, I was the recipient of what was clearly a great deal of anger that the leaders were carrying with them. They had already grilled me in regard to the lack of pastoral visitation they currently received, and now they had to make sure that my theology was correct.

“Who is Jesus for you?” the Circuit Steward asked.

In light of the conversation that had already been conducted, it was clear that the expected answer was, “Jesus is my Lord and Saviour” in the full evangelical sense of the words, however I chose to respond honestly, out of my own of struggle. It became clear in the facial expression and body language of the group that my already low chance of being appointed to that place had hit rock bottom, although by that stage I had already decided that I really did not want to serve among these hostile people. Perhaps that’s why I was able to be honest!

The question did, however, lead me into a time of reflection on who Jesus is for me, and what he means in my faith journey. The answer that I came to was, “Jesus is the Word.” As I sought to answer that question more fully I was reading some of the authors mentioned in part 1 who shaped my thinking quite profoundly, and so in this part I have relied quite deeply on the work of Marcus Borg in his book Heart of Christianity.

So what do I mean by “Jesus is the Word”? As John begins his gospel he calls to mind the opening words of the Hebrew Bible, “In the beginning…,” and the reader who hears those words is no doubt supposed to remember the story of creation as God spoke the cosmos into being. Who hasn’t thought of the words of Genesis 1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth… And God said, ‘Let there be light…’”?

It was through God’s spoken word that creation was brought into being! By identifying Jesus as the Word of God, the spoken Word of God, and indeed, as the same as God, John is making the powerful statement that Jesus as the Word is the expression of everything God is. And it is this point that John expands upon in his beautiful and eloquent prologue to his gospel as he describes Jesus as the one to bring the light, grace and truth of God – indeed, the very presence of God – into the world which God has created.

Jesus, for Christians then, says Borg, is the decisive revelation of God (Heart of God, p 80-81) and therefore Jesus reveals what can be seen of God embodied in a human life. Jesus, the Word made flesh, shows us what God is like and what God is most passionate about. Jesus reveals the heart of God and in that shows us that God is not about death, but is rather about being able to live life fully. God calls and restores those who are broken and gives them a reason to live.

Conversely, while Jesus shows us what God looks like he also shows us what a human life filled with God looks like, and it is this affirmation that defines not just what it means to Christian, but also what it means to be fully human.

As Son of God, as Jesus reveals God, as the Word becomes flesh, so Jesus embodies what can be seen of God in a human life.

But how can Jesus, a man, be described by his followers as God? If I had to stand up and say, “listen to me everyone, I’m God, you have to listen to me…” I don’t think that I would have much of a following!

So here’s this man, and again, I’m grateful to Borg in The Heart of God for the categories that I use, who starts working, ministering in Judea as someone who is close to God, who appears to be a mystic. He does some healings, some teaching. He appears to be a prophet, who even appears to some to be starting a revolutionary movement as Messiah – who, incidentally, historically was never seen as being God – how does he become God?

And I think that this is how it happens: The first followers of Jesus, when he was alive, and soon after the resurrection – Jewish people – realised that what they saw in Christ perfectly epitomised what they understood about God. Jesus was the human expression of what they knew about God. Jesus, in a very real way, was the Word made flesh – and the Word was far more than sacrifice.

And when we keep this Word central to our lives – And here I want to be clear that when I speak of the Word I’m speaking of Jesus and not scripture – When we keep this Word, the expression of who God is, central, and begin to take this Word seriously, and begin to confess the Word as God – again, not scripture! – we start to realise that the language of confession is also the language of commitment. Our confession leads us into a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and how we respond to him, until we have no option but to call Jesus Lord.

This is the second understanding of Jesus, apart from Saviour, that I want to explore and it is this understanding – an understanding which led the first Christians directly into conflict with the Roman empire – that I will look at in more depth in part 3.

Orgasmic faith

30 October 2012

Who can forget the diner scene in the movie When Harry met Sally? Sally assures Harry, whom she accuses of being a womaniser, that women are perfectly capable of faking orgasm, and demonstrates this. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can watch it here. I love the request of the older woman in the next booth who says to the waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having!” I’m sure she was disappointed!

I wonder how often we fake our Christian faith, complete with an appropriate number of “Oh Gods” and “yes, yes YESSES”. Because we’ve been told all these good things, we try to act them out, but with little change in our hearts. I believe that there can be value in “faking it till we make it,” but more often we become hypocrites, hiding behind a mask of “have it all together” Christianity, while inside we’re dead. Jesus said something about that in Matthew 23. Sometimes people are attracted by our lifestyle and take “what we’re having” but find it strangely unfulfilling and leave, wondering what the fuss was all about.

Real relationships are not usually about a continuous state of orgasm!

Why Jesus is not my Saviour (Part 1)

29 October 2012

As I’ve completed my Masters’ Degree over the last year I have done very little blogging, and when I have it has mainly been to avoid my studies. In any event, I’m back and jumping right in with a repackaged version of a sermon series that I preached in 2009 in Brackenhurst, to the amusement of some and the disgust of others. I have long wanted to post it here and have finally gotten around to doing so. I will probably divide the content into six parts, making up the second and third sermons in a series which I entitled “God is bigger than” in which I challenged some of the assumptions that we make as Christians. (The first was “Why I don’t say grace.”) Today I’ll offer the context of my struggle, and then in coming weeks will look at how we understand both “Jesus” and Salvation”.

Some may be horrified to hear me make a statement along the lines of “Jesus is not my Saviour”: “How can this guy, a Methodist minister, make such a statement?” Others may say, “Oh well, a Methodist minister! What do you expect?!” I begin by stating first that this discussion takes place in the context of my journey – which may not be your journey – and that’s okay — please engage me! and second that I want to keep Christ central to what I’m saying, so even while I say Jesus is not my Saviour, I’m not wanting to exclude Christ from the picture – He has been an important part of my life since before I was 16 when I stood up at an altar call and walked down the aisle choosing to follow him. But as I’ve journeyed since then and have grown in the Christian faith I have become increasingly dissatisfied with the picture of Jesus only as Saviour, this emphasis in the church that the gospel is all about how Jesus died for my sins and this is what has set me free.

I have found this increasingly difficult to believe, firstly struggling with whether God sent Jesus really to die, or if that was simply the consequence being the man he was, and then being increasingly horrified by the kind of theology expressed in stories like this one:

There once was a man who was a drawbridge operator and he took his son to work one day. While he wasn’t paying attention, his son wandered away. A ship was approaching and he needed to raise the drawbridge. To his horror he saw that his son was playing in the cogs of the mechanism and he had to make a choice: Sacrifice his son in the gears, or destroy the bridge, and cause the sinking of the ship and loss of many lives. He chose to sacrifice one life, that of his son, so that many could be saved, and this is what God did for us in sending Jesus to the cross.

To my mind this is just sick and I no longer want to serve the kind of God explained by this story, and as I have journeyed I have come to realise that I cannot believe this story of Jesus dying for my sins and, frankly, find it repulsive. So what does a minister do when what is apparently a central tenet of the Christian faith becomes unpalatable? Resign? Preach what I don’t believe?

It was at this very point in time when I had attended interviews at a number of different congregations who were looking for a new minister. In one of the groups somebody asked me a question, “Who is Jesus for you?” and I knew that in this context they were checking my Christian credentials. The correct answer, of course, was that Jesus is my Lord and Saviour, but I chose to answer honestly and to say that I was in a period of transition and struggling with that question. Needless to say, I wasn’t offered the post, but it did get me thinking and seeking to answer the question as a part of my journey.

So I opted to choose a third way apart from resigning or preaching what I don’t believe – a way of being Christian and following Jesus faithfully without ‘his blood shed on the cross for me as an atoning sacrifice’ being the most important aspect of my faith. And I’m very grateful to a number of authors such as Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong and Brian McLaren who helped me in my thinking, and to whom I refer regularly in this discussion.

Robert Capon, a contemporary Christian writer, suggests that the way Americans (and I would add “Western Christians”) really view Jesus is like Superman, and he quotes those well-known words describing the man of steel:

“Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. It’s Superman! Strange visitor from another planet, who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way.”

“If that isn’t popular christology [way of seeing Christ], I’ll eat my hat. Jesus —gentle, meek and mild, but with secret, souped-up, more-than-human insides — bumbles around for thirty-three years, nearly gets himself done in for good by the Kryptonite Kross, but at the last minute struggles into the phone booth of the Empty Tomb, changes into his Easter suit and with a single bound leaps back up to the planet Heaven. It’s got it all — including, just so you shouldn’t miss the lesson, kiddies: He never once touches Lois Lane.” [quoted by Borg. Jesus: Two Visions, 303-304]

And, I would want to add, that our Jesus as Saviour sweeps down from heaven, lifts us from the miry clay and takes us back up into heaven with him. If we’re honest, that’s how many of us see Jesus, certainly it’s the way I saw Jesus for much of my journey, and so the burning question that we need to ask of ourselves honestly – and answer honestly – is “Who is Jesus for me?” Our picture of Jesus determines how we understand Christianity and the gospel. When we tell the Jesus story with an emphasis on his death on the cross, and the primary purpose of Jesus’ life being to die for the sins of the world we buy into the evangelical

“Jesus died for my sins. He shed his precious blood on the cross of Calvary for my salvation. I have been washed in the blood of the lamb. Through the sacrifice of Jesus I have been saved. The stain of sin on my soul has been cleansed” model. [Spong,Why Christianity must Change or Die, 83-84]

And this is the image I want to get away from when I say that Jesus is not my Saviour because when we tell the story this way we distort who God is, and we distort who God is by painting him primarily a lawgiver and judge whose commandments we have violated, and Jesus as the sacrifice who makes forgiveness possible. Yet the reality is that if we were asked to give a nutshell understanding of Christianity this is probably how most of us would answer.

The problem is that this emphasis upon Jesus as substitutionary sacrifice leads to a Christian life that is centred in sin, guilt and forgiveness and highlights our repeated failure to follow the teachings of Jesus adequately. This has resulted, in the west at least, in religious leaders, both laity and clergy, having the power to understand and manipulate the resultant sense of human inadequacy and guilt with Church, as expressed in the movie “As it is in Heaven”: handing out guilt with one hand, and forgiveness with the other. So many people see the Church as sin, guilt and punishment, because of a distorted view of Jesus only as Saviour.

I don’t want to go into a long explanation of atonement theology here, simply to say that while it had its roots in the New Testament theology of Paul, it only really began to be developed by St Augustine – who had his own issues with his physical desires – the idea of giving one’s life to Christ as Lord and Saviour at an altar call is really a very recent development.

So is there an alternative way of seeing Jesus that is equally valid and equally biblical? I believe there is, and in this series I will be unpacking two ways of seeing Jesus – and there are probably many more – but for me these lie at the heart of who Jesus is, and answer the question who Jesus is for me. Firstly, Jesus as Word, and then Jesus as Lord. I’ll pick these ideas up next time!


philippa cole

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